Near-total abortion ban rejected by Virginia House panel

FILE - Visitors mill around the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Jan. 8, 2020. Lawmakers in the Virginia House of Delegates this week voted down a bill that would have instituted a near-total abortion ban. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, file)
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Lawmakers in the Virginia House of Delegates — controlled by Democrats who flipped the chamber in November after campaigning on abortion rights — decisively voted down a bill that would have instituted a near-total abortion ban.

On a bipartisan 8-0 vote Wednesday night, a House subcommittee rejected the measure that would have prohibited abortions except in cases necessary to save the mother's life, the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported.

Bill sponsor Tim Griffin, a freshman Republican from Bedford, faced questions about the implications his bill would have for miscarriage care and rape victims. He responded that the bill was about “protecting unborn children and women,” according to the newspaper.

On a party-line vote, Democrats on the same panel voted down a different bill that would have prohibited abortions sought on the basis of the sex or race of the fetus.

Abortion was a central theme in last year's legislative elections, when every General Assembly seat was on the ballot. Democrats campaigned on a promise to protect access to abortion in Virginia, which has some of the South's most permissive laws and is the only state in the region that has not imposed new abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade fell. The issue was seen as helping power Democrats' ability to hold the state Senate and flip control of the House.

Republicans in competitive districts largely coalesced around GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin's proposal to ban abortions after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Morgan Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the House Democratic caucus, said Wednesday night's votes marked a fulfillment of the party's campaign trail pledge.

“For months, House Democrats told Virginians that a Democratic majority would protect their rights and freedoms and this subcommittee did just that tonight. We believe the choice to seek reproductive healthcare — and it is healthcare — should always be a decision between a woman and her doctor, not politicians,” she said in a written statement shared Thursday with The Associated Press.

A spokesman for the House GOP caucus, Garren Shipley, declined to comment.

Later Thursday, House Democrats announced plans to use a rare procedural move to put another abortion-related bill from Griffin to a floor vote next week, in what they characterized as an effort to put every House member on the record on the issue.

A committee led by Democratic House Speaker Don Scott voted to bring to the floor without a recommendation a measure from Griffin that would further restrict the already limited circumstances in which public funding can be used to provide abortion services. Griffin's bill also says state funding would be prohibited from flowing to any entity that provides abortions or operates a facility where abortion services are provided.

That would have a “tremendous impact” on hospitals and organizations such as Planned Parenthood that provide both abortions and health care services including sexually transmitted disease testing and contraception, said Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Democrats will have the numbers to defeat the measure while forcing Republicans to weigh in on it.

“Voters have shown time and time again where they stand on this vital issue and it is only right that their representatives do the same,” Scott said in a statement.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, who in the committee hearing was prevented from proposing an amendment to Griffin's bill to allow for continued abortion funding exceptions in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother, said Griffin's measure had been “drafted rather inartfully."

He said Democrats' denial of his effort to amend the bill to align with federal law “means that this is just going to be a ‘gotcha’ moment for them and they're trying to set it up for political spectacle.”

Other abortion-related legislation advancing this session includes Democratic-sponsored bills that would prevent the issuance of search warrants for electronic or digital menstrual health data. Proponents say the measures would afford women privacy protection and prevent such information from being weaponized in potential abortion-related court cases. Similar legislation passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote last year but was opposed by the Youngkin administration and died in the House of Delegates, which was then controlled by Republicans.

Democrats have also vowed to start the yearslong process of seeking to add abortion protections to the state Constitution, though they opted to postpone debate over the exact language until next year. Doing so does not impact the timeline by which voters would be able to consider a proposed amendment.